Ehrlich comments translate into real bunk

May 13, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

THERE is no such thing as a multicultural society that can sustain itself, in my view, and I think history teaches us this lesson." Thus spake the lettered historian, Robert Ehrlich, in his denunciation of what angry white males like to dress up as a profound threat to the American way of life and our precious bodily fluids -- multiculturalism. The governor of Maryland called it "crap" and "bunk," getting down with his right-wing pals on the radio show of a man who a few years ago referred to Hispanic immigrants as "wetbacks" and refused to apologize for it.

It's a great country, no? Our governor attended Gilman and Princeton. Schoolchildren see his name on the bumpers of their parents' SUVs. A new generation of young, engaged Republicans looks to him for leadership and even progressive thinking. And he'll be on national television Saturday at the Preakness. But any time he wants, he can sound like just another Joe Sixpack, letting off steam about America being overrun with people who no speaky the English. No need for a lot of intellectualizing here; when Bobby Governor feels the need to shore up his conservative bona fides he goes on a radio talk show and preaches to the choir. Crap! Bunk! Pow!

He can say, "There is no such thing as a multicultural society that can sustain itself, in my view, and I think history teaches us this lesson," in the face of two centuries of American experience to the contrary, and probably feel downright serene about the whole thing. The choir will say, "Yeah, right on, Bob," and never mind how one particularly grand experiment in the "nonmulticultural society" (the Third Reich) stands as modern history's most stunning travesty.

"Every time you walk into this church," Father Joe Muth has been known to tell his parishioners at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore, "you stand against the threat of what Germany was becoming in World War II, the homogenization of a society."

Muth's parish has families from 40 countries. The church has an immigration center, providing counseling and legal services to men and women who are new to the United States.

The center grew out of parish development talks about seven years ago. The people of St. Matthew's recognized Baltimore's growing immigrant population and heard many of its new parishioners speak of the fears they experienced as they stepped into American culture and tried to make a living and learn a new language. "That fear was revealed to us, exposed, and it was profound," Muth says. "It was decided that the church needs to be in the middle of that fear, to walk with [immigrants] and to break them of that fear."

Fear is an interesting dynamic in this discussion. It seems to be what fuels the anti-multiculturalists, those who believe "diversity" is a dangerous word and multicultural education a grave threat to the society.

But who knows? I don't think Ehrlich even knows what he's denouncing. I suspect he has an idea of multiculturalism, probably garnered from talk radio, as some kind of liberal conspiracy to balkanize the provinces by encouraging Americans to celebrate their ethnic and racial diversity to an extreme and to refrain from assimilating into the culture.

Even as the economy becomes more global, as young Americans embrace a new world of opportunity created by the Internet, as more and more people cross ethnic and racial lines to marry, as new immigrants take low-paying jobs many Americans refuse to take, we have grouches complaining about -- what? -- bilingual signage at fast-food joints?

This started last week with classic, attention-grabbing babblings of William Donald Schaefer. He supposedly ran into an employee at a McDonald's -- supposedly the McDonald's at Ritchie Highway and Robinson Road in Severna Park -- who he said didn't speak English. And apparently this created some sort of inconvenience for the easily annoyed state comptroller and delayed his Happy Meal.

First off, I don't even believe Schaefer. It's possible he ran into someone who spoke with a heavy accent, but I doubt he ran into someone who did not speak English and who was not accustomed to the simple ordering schemes of a fast-food restaurant.

Schaefer also complained about McDonald's distributing a food bag with "every language on there except English." More baloney. I went to the same McDonald's Schaefer supposedly visited and the bag I received was multilingual and included the words "I'm lovin' it" in English.

So Schaefer has another tirade, gets some supportive e-mail and, within a day or so, Bobby Governor is calling multiculturalism "crap" and "bunk." The talk-radio crowd loved it. But to the rest of us out here, who grew up in immigrant families and who still believe ethnic diversity is one of the coolest aspects of American life, this sounds like old-fashioned immigrant bashing.

Lesson for Bobby Governor: A young, promising Republican shouldn't take his cues from a cranky Democrat past his political prime and out of touch with a changing world.

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